Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Ten Questions with John Steffler

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Ten Questions with John Steffler

John Steffler's latest poetry collection, Lookout, is in stores today. On Monday, April 19 at Dora Keogh Traditional Irish Pub, McClelland & Stewart will be celebrating the launch of three poetry titles: Steffler's Lookout, Ossuaries by Dionne Brand and The Reinvention of the Human Hand by Paul Vermeersch. See our events page for details.

Open Book: Toronto:

Tell us about your book, Lookout.

John Steffler:

This collection, which looks back over the 32 years I lived in Newfoundland, is a kind of goodbye to the island and its people. Well, not a permanent goodbye; but I’m living in Ontario again, and any poems I write about Newfoundland now will be written from a very different vantage point.

Lookout is all about trying to get a broad overview of a place – its character, its history and culture – and an overview also of my own life, both as it relates to the place and as a story or trajectory in itself.

Wilderness or the uncontrollable and the unexpected are central subjects in this collection – hence the double meaning in Lookout as “watch out” or “warning." Divorce, illness, loss and wreckage keep cropping up, along with inexhaustible joy at the earth’s beauty and mystery.

OBT:

Did you have a specific readership in mind when you wrote your book?

JS:

I write for people who are drawn to poetry as a way into increased thoughtfulness and awareness and who get excited by excited language. I suppose my imaginary readership looks for a link between poetry and lived experience: poetry that leads us back into the world with renewed appetite or renewed insight and feeling for what’s around us, for who we are and for the lives of others. Although many of my poems have to do with Newfoundland, I don’t write primarily for Newfoundlanders (although their responses to what I write are often the most meaningful to me). In a sense I write for poetry itself or for the history of poets, the long legacy of everyone who has tried to distil his or her life and experience of the world in language.

OBT:

How does the Canadian landscape influence your work?

JS:

Landscape is very important to me. I believe that land (or place) and climate influence human culture which in turn leaves its impression on the land – which in turn influences new generations of humans. This struck me as a powerful and obvious fact in Newfoundland when I moved there from Toronto in 1975. An important part of getting to know Newfoundland and coming to terms with it – its climate and “foreign” culture – for me, involved getting to know its landscape, getting out in it, living close to it.

I don’t see landscape as a backdrop to our culture but as a living entity to which we are connected, a kind of “character," a kind of primitive deity with which we have a complex, deep relationship. I think that in Canada we need to get to know our landscape as it is. As colonists, we have tended to see our land either as a vast stock pile of resources or as a hostile wilderness in need of European-style civilization. I think we need to learn to see it more in the way the original native inhabitants saw it, with a character and life of its own.

OBT:

Tell us about your writing process.

JS:

Poetry for me is an exercise aimed at bringing me closer to the world and to my essential self. I try to tap into the vast stored energy and accumulated experience in language to do this. I see language as a technology, a virtual reality of symbols in which we package the world in portable symbolic form and project onto the world our idea of what it is. As such, it is prone to separating us from the world, fostering culture as a kind of parallel world in which we have the illusion that we can live detached from nature in a realm of human invention. But language also has deep roots that go back to a time when humans still lived more equitably with other creatures. In poetry we can tap into these ancient roots in language and use linguistic technology to break the self-enclosing shell of culture. In poetry we let language off the leash, we excite language and thus excite our senses and awareness; and so language in poetry leads us back into closer relationship with the world and our essential selves.

Writing prose for me has something in common with poetry – an interest in melodic line, the shaping of sequences at the level of the sentence as well as at the level of the paragraph and the chapter – but prose fiction is more a matter of inventing and building extended structures than an exercise in connectedness and awareness. I like to build my prose works on extensive research and on an awareness of broad historical and cultural issues rather than on personal experience.

OBT:

Who are your literary influences?

JS:

They are too many to name. Folk tales, fairy tales, Homer, on through the great British writers, Proust, Flaubert, de Maupassant, Chekov, Beckett, Joyce, Blake. Hopkins, Woolf, Rilke, Kafka, Eliot, Williams, Kawabata, Tu Fu, Li Po, Atwood as a poet, Munro, Ondaatje, Ishiguro, Sebald.

OBT:

What was your first publication?

JS:

The very first was a poem in the high school year book.

OBT:

Tell us about your time as Poet Laureate of Canada.

JS:

It was a very busy time, especially as I was also teaching at Concordia at the time. I felt the pressures and expectations attached to public office, and I worked hard to do some good, i.e., to advance the cause of poetry in our nation and encourage young poets to believe in the value of the art. I travelled a lot and gave talks, readings, lectures, workshops and interviews. I organized readings and a panel discussion, operated a poem-of-the-week program on the poet laureate website and tried to kickstart an online audio archive of Canadian poets reading a selection of their work. I didn’t write any poems for state occasions. I wrote a satirical poem about the abuse of language on Parliament Hill. The whole experience was a great honour, and it was a great relief when it was over and I could go back to being myself.

OBT:

If you had to pick three books as a "welcome to Canada" gift, what would they be?

JS:

A selection of Alice Munro’s stories, The Diviners and In the Skin of a Lion.

OBT:

What advice do you have for writers who are trying to get published?

JS:

Concentrate on writing well. Dedicate yourself to the craft and the long line of writers to which you belong. Read great writers. Be observant. Originality and fresh insights come from independent observation, not from following fashions or trying to anticipate trends. As likely as not if you write well publishers will find you. It’s true that you won’t get published by hiding your work in a drawer, but you only need to spend about 5% of your time promoting yourself. Spend the other 95% writing as honestly and precisely as you can.

OBT:

What's your next project?

JS:

I want to return to a novel I began several years ago and have begun to rewrite. I also want to begin a whole new series of poems arising from living in a new place in a new way.


John Steffler was the Parliamentary Poet Laureate of Canada from 2006 to 2008. His previous books of poetry include The Grey Islands, That Night We Were Ravenous, winner of the Atlantic Poetry Prize, and Helix: New and Selected Poems, winner of the Newfoundland and Labrador Poetry Prize. Steffler is also the author of the award-winning novel The Afterlife of George Cartwright.

For more information about Lookout please visit the McClelland & Stewart website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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